having my (chocolate-zucchini) cake and eating it too

Flashback to last fall: A large sum of money for  a master’s degree I wasn’t sure would benefit me. The economy crumbling. Journalism and publishing thrust suddenly into uncertain terms. Everyone running scared. Most of us dismal.

The news kept pouring in. Magazine closures. Mass lay-offs. Falling stocks. It was a hard time in which to dream, but we pushed ahead. After all, the news — however depressing it was — kept pouring in.

I heard somewhere that if you do what you love, the money will follow.

We listened to speakers challenge us to reinvention. We were urged to develop skills unheard of a year prior. We told each other over wine that it would be OK, that we’d find that elusive “something.” We joked about back-up plans. In the end, some of us pursued them.

And despite the pessimism, words and ideas compelled me on. There was really little else I could do.

There were deadlines and ethics classes and pouring over 100-year-old magazines in the caverns of Cornell University. There were hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails, and a beast called Media Law.

There was an incorrect byline, and months of correspondence with an editor just to get a tiny piece published.

We fact-checked, edited, and wrote display copy until we were “dek’d” out in punchy prose. We interned, blogged, and built websites as we watched our favorite magazines sink like the Syracuse winter sun.

The things that kept us alive?  Coffee and conversation. Yoga. Significant others. Early-morning swims. Getting published. Parties. Praise from professors. Awards. The simplest things were somehow the most profound.

Well, the money hasn’t followed yet, but a dream I never named as such has recently come true. The ingredients, never much on their own, have coalesced into something of great satisfaction and potential. I feel as grateful for these new gifts as I often do for dessert — a thing so unnecessary, and in a way, so undeserved.

This one is so soft and gently spiced with orange you’ll think the world a better place with each bite. And for now, at least in my little corner of Syracuse, it really is.

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chocolate syrup you can believe in

There’s something so satisfying about making stuff. As a child of the 80s, boxes and packages of commercially-produced food formed part of my culinary landscape. Hamburger Helper was far from our family table, but the grocery store scene and the post-agrarian commuter town I grew up in did nothing to plant the DIY spirit.  I thought nothing of this situation until I hit my mid-20s, when people I admired started becoming more interested in what this thing called food is all about.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I realized it was cheaper to make stuff like granola, rather than buying boxes of the sugar-laced junk. Maybe it was in my early 20s, when I accepted the fact that I actually enjoyed baking and cooking. Maybe it was my first summer tending a garden, when I experienced that constant wonder at a planet that gives so much without asking for anything back.

Somewhere along the lines, I started caring what was in my food. And though there are people out there (some of them who read this blog) who believe that thinking about food diminishes the joy of eating, I’m not one of them. Food is both a pleasure and a necessity. It’s both an end in itself,  and a vehicle for nutrients. It can rollick the senses one day, and just get you by the next.

With the recent peanut butter contamination, people have been up in arms about food safety. And rightly so. Some have been indignant, some informative, others just plain hilarious:  Jon Stewart’s attempt last week to eat a Chinese toy-spinach-tomato-peanut-butter sandwich cracked me up more than his teeth.

It all got me thinking about turn-of -the-century hero Upton Sinclair, who in 1906 shook the U.S. with his novel exposing the horrors of the meatpacking industry. I’ll spare you the details, but Sinclair’s outrage led to that year’s passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

After following the pb story, I realized again how literal the term junk food truly is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sanitation freak. I’m still well after numerous dirt-flecked garden carrots and trips overseas without hand sanitizer. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s good for you, either. 

But rat hair, maggots, and mildew? No thanks. I’m not going to start making my own ketchup or anything, but the whole racket makes me want to keep as much food preparation under my control as I can. So what I don’t bleach my countertops every second day, at least I try to keep out the FDA’s allowable “30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams.” * 

In the meantime, I just wanted to be able to infuse some chocolate into my (neutrally flavored) protein shakes once in awhile. Is that too much for a triathlete to ask? Whisking in stright up cocoa left it lumpy, and every bottle at the store boasted high-fructose corn syrup as its first ingredient. I’ll take real sugar, thanks.  

So here it is, in all it’s pure, sweet, no-fat chocolately glory. Ready to spoon over commercially-made ice cream, stirred into factory-farmed milk, or into my favorite of the fake protein delivery systems. Isn’t being alive today such a wonderful paradox?

Bring 1½ cups water and 3 cups white sugar to a boil, stirring often. Reduce to medium and whisk in 1½ cups cocoa1 Tbsp vanilla extract¼ tsp salt, and 1 Tbsp honey (if the mixture starts to rise, simply take it off the element while you whisk). Whisk over medium heat until all solids have dissolved. Simmer until the mixture has thickened, strain (if you’re worried about chunks, mine seemed OK) and cool for a few minutes on the counter.

Pour into a squeeze bottle or jar and store in the fridge. Because of the high sugar content and lack of fat, the syrup should keep for at least 6 months. 

*U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”  FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available here

mexican spiced chocolate sorbet

These days I barely have time to dream. If I did, I would dream about spending time in my kitchen as I used to do, stirring together wonderful things. But school has sucked me in and sucked me dry.

Just weeks ago I had the time for wonderful things. Books for pleasure, long and lazy conversations, hours on the yoga mat. I am happy where I am, but it has brought a sea change.

If I could find the time to sleep, perchance I could find the time to dream: an afternoon for dark chocolate, my very own ice-cream maker, kisses of cayenne. I would dream about this Mexican iced sorbet I made when days allowed for dreams. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a few minutes left to actually bring it to life.

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beguiled by bread

Just when I thought chocolate and I had gotten to know each other fairly well, the little devil comes and ambushes me out of nowhere. Of all the wonderfully handsome guises chocolate has taken in the time we’ve spent together– in hot steamy cups after a ski, wrapped in the papers of chi chi bars and truffles, baked into tortes and smothered in ganache — never before has chocolate disclosed itself to me in this way.

Yesterday, cloaked in the aromas of baking bread, chocolate snuck up behind me and wrapped me in its soft embrace.

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All attempts at the foodie Harlequin aside, I did make a darn good loaf of bread yesterday. My excitement mimicked the moment Mark caught me on camera, taking my first Cook’s Illustrated recipe (pumpkin quick-bread) out of the oven:

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Thus far, bread baking has provided only great expectations chased with grave disappointments. All of my loafs in the past have turned out heavy and gluey. I hate to admit it but it was probably the millet, flax, seeds, and whole wheat flour I weighed the poor things down with. And lack of practice of course. But sometimes you just don’t want to stick your hands in 40 hunks of dough before you get it right, you know?

When our local grocery store came out with chocolate bread as a February feature, I tasted some with sweetened cream cheese and one solitary goal emerged from the clamour that was my tastebuds going “bread/brownie/bread/brownie?” I set out on a mission to create my own version. And one not ridiculously overpriced, and not containing high fructose corn syrup to boot.

Turning to the trusty internet, I compiled a list of chocolate bread recipes and began studying. Deb over at Smitten Kitchen came through again, with a recipe straight from the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. That high-falutin’ ring was enough to convince me to follow her guide to uniting chocolate and bread in holy matrimony. Ok, maybe holy is pushing it. Yummy matrimony anyway.

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Just look at the way its rising above the side of the pan? I think the whole Westcott neighbourhood must’ve heard me screech with delight. Tap tap, is that a hollow sound? Sniff sniff, is that the smell of yeast propelled grains clamouring over grains of sugar and dusted with cocoa? Yes yes yes. It is magic, and it happened in my kitchen. Shame on you, 5$ Wegman’s bread, but thanks for the inspiration.

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